Examination of Witnesses (Questions 319
MONDAY 18 MAY 2009
18 MAY 2009 RT
Q319 Dr Gibson: John Beddington and
Paul Drayson, thank you very, very much for coming. I have been
given the chair of this session, but there have been arguments
about the chair in Parliament, as you have heard this afternoon,
going on. It will not be like that, I assure you. This is too
serious a matter to reduce ourselves to silliness. You know this
is the last session on Science and Engineering at the Heart of
Government Policy, so we are really looking forward to some advice
from you, so I will start off and lob you a quick one, and I think,
Paul Drayson, you might want to answer this one. Do you think
that science and engineering are at the heart of government policy,
or are we kidding ourselves, or are they in the liver, I guess?
Lord Drayson: I think that we
have made real progress over the last year in putting science
and engineering more at the heart of government policy, and I
think we can point to specific achievements which have helped
to deliver that, but I do think that there is more that we need
to do, and I think the focus on this area that your Committee's
work has brought is helpful.
Q320 Dr Gibson: John, do you have
Professor Beddington: Yes, I think
to an extentwell, I have been in the job 14 months, a little
bit longer than Paul, but by and large I am reasonably pleased.
There is a lot more to do, and particularly I think on engineering
there is an issue there where we really need to work harder.
Q321 Dr Gibson: Let us be a little
more specific perhaps. We have talked to you before about civil
servants with scientific backgrounds, engineering backgrounds
and so on. What are you guys doing to meet the goal, and what
is the goal?
Professor Beddington: I think
one of the things that I was showing you when I was here last
time was setting up this community of government science and engineering.
I think the day before, we had held the first conference, which
Paul and myself and Gus O'Donnell spoke at. We basically reformulated
the plans for that, and we are happy to show them to you in detail
if you would like, but I will just cover them briefly. The plan
is that we want to double the number of people who we are actually
electing to be part of the government science and engineering
Q322 Dr Gibson: Could you quantitate
Professor Beddington: Yes, we
want to get it up to 3,000, it is currently at 1,600, by the end
of the year. In addition, we are going to hold two interim conferences,
which again we plan to do, those conferences are going to be on
subjects that are actually chosen by the community, and then we
are going to have an annual conference in January of next year.
So that is one of the things we are doing, and we are actually
setting up internet access, so that people can share ideas. So
I think that is working well, but it is work in progress. As I
indicated to you, we have reasonalthough the data is so
poor, you can say little more than thatto believe there
are probably something like 16,000-odd members who have a background
in science and engineering skills in government as a whole, but
we cannot identify them in any particular way. We are trying to
identify them by this self-selection process, and I think that
is happening. I was encouraged that in the first relatively early
days of the exercise, we brought in about 10%, and we are shooting
for 20% next time. I think that that will go, and I have hopes
that we will exceed that target of 3,000, but I think it is a
Q323 Mr Boswell: Thank you for that,
and thank you for reporting progress, because we expressed some
interest in that earlier. Can I just ask either Paul or yourself,
John, whether you have made any progress or whether you think
there is any progress to be made in developing a general metric
about what you might call the science footprint within government?
I mean, how do you know whether you are making an impact or not?
The Minister said he was, and I am not disposed to argue with
him, but how could we actually set about measuring that kind of
Professor Beddington: I suppose
there are a few that are worth highlighting. The first one is
the fact that we have succeeded in embedding chief scientific
advisers almost in every main department of state. There are four
advertised at present. One will be the new Department of Energy
and Climate Change; the other is the Foreign Office, and there
were interviews for that last week, for which I was on the panel;
the next one is MI5, where I had to interview and explain it was
not involving designing weapons systems for Aston Martins.
Q324 Dr Gibson: Did they check your
record first? Student revolts, no doubt.
Professor Beddington: They may
have. And of course there will be a replacement for Michael Kelly
at CLG which is going to be coming up. So really the only large
department of state that does not have a chief scientific adviser
is now the Treasury, and we are now talking to the Treasury about
how that might be implemented, given its rather different brief.
So that is one activity that I would focus as being some achievement.
The second one is to do with science reviews, and as I discussed
in a previous session to this committee, I felt they were too
long, too detailed, and therefore, we wanted to move to another
form, which is a faster assurance, which will be much more at
a higher level but shorter, and we reached agreement about two
weeks ago that these would be mandatory for any department or
institution that has not actually already had a review. For those
that have, like DEFRA and so on, we are in the process of ongoing
assessment of how they are performing against a particular review,
but it was agreed, in the civil service board which runs such
things, that all departments that have not had one will be mandated
to have one. The aim is to complete this exercise of having done
a science and engineering review of all departments by March 2011,
so it is a relatively quick timescale to get them, and this includes
things of very different sizes, it includes the Ministry of Defence
and the Treasury.
Q325 Mr Boswell: Will you give some
thought to whether you can publish some of the material arising
from that? I am thinking for example of the kind of capacity reports
which have come out of the Treasury and Cabinet Office in the
past in relation to individual departments.
Professor Beddington: The policy
is to publish. The plan would be that we would publish these reports
-- the one exception is the intelligence agencies where we would
Q326 Dr Gibson: As I understand it,
John, you are talking about people who are in post at the minute,
distributed about the Whitehall centres, departments, but I am
looking at the young graduate who is fed up and does not want
to do research at the bench, but has a real understanding and
is a hot shot, man or woman, who wants to get into this. You know,
there are lots of people in this country who want to get into
putting the ideas of science over from their youthful experience,
be it PhD students or post-docs. What are you doing about them?
Are you recruiting at Hull, recruiting at Newcastle, looking for
more, or are you just recruiting from inside the beltway here?
Professor Beddington: I cannot
answer in terms of actually going out to recruitment. As far as
I am aware, that does not happen, I think it is open advertising.
I have certainly not been involved in this.
Q327 Dr Gibson: But would you like
it to happen?
Professor Beddington: I think
it is an interesting idea, Chairman. As far as I am aware, some
departments do that, I think the Ministry of Defence actually
goes out and looks at it, but I cannot answer for government as
a whole. I think there is enormous opportunity. I think the chance
of getting science and engineering graduates into the fast stream,
we discussed, I think, the last time we met here, I would strongly
support it. I think we need to think about how we can open that
up, and I am more than happy to give a commitment to go away and
think about that.
Dr Gibson: Anybody else want to follow
Q328 Dr Harris: I just wanted to
ask you about how important you think the independence of scientific
advisory committees is, reflecting back on the Phillips report
into BSE, and how important you think the independence is of advice
to you, Lord Drayson, and the people that you talk to, Professor
Lord Drayson: I think it is very
important that the advice is independent, not just to myself as
Science Minister, but to all ministers within government. It is
a very important resource, it is a resource that this country
is well endowed with.
Professor Beddington: We have
a lot of science advisory committees in government, of the order
of 100 or so on particular subjects. Only a few departments have
science advisory councils which span across the individual departments.
The ones that do that are the Ministry of Defence, the Home Office,
DEFRA and the Food Standards Agency. They are the only ones that
have, as it were, a science advisory council that deals with everything.
There are many individual committees in many departments which
deal with sub-sets of subject areas.
Q329 Dr Harris: What do you think
are the characteristics of an independent scientific advisory
system, for example, that guarantee its independence? What are
the key factors that need to be there, that they can be independent
and be seen to be independent?
Professor Beddington: I think
the first thing is the appointment process clearly has to be independent.
Some of them are appointed under Nolan rules where they are paid,
some of them are actually appointed in other ways. I think there
are some guidelines that were set out for the behaviour of science
advisory committees which my predecessor developed, and I think
we are planning to keep those under review. I think we need to
Q330 Dr Harris: Do you have anything
to add to the response to my question, which was: what are the
essential ingredients in ensuring that scientific advice is independent
and seen to be independent?
Lord Drayson: Publication of results
of that advice.
Q331 Dr Harris: What about the idea
of giving advice without fear nor favour, as it were? What about
the situation where someone might be concerned that they would
be publicly attacked by the minister or government for the nature
of their advice, because the minister disagreed with it? Do you
think that might lead to questions about whether future advice
is independent or seen to be independent?
Professor Beddington: I can probably
answer this, because actually the instance that was probably of
considerable concern was when the Home Secretary criticised Professor
Nutt for an article he wrote, and I wrote to the Home Secretary
about that, indicating that I had real concerns that this affair
had the potential of being used both widely and in the media more
widely as a discouragement for people wishing to become members
of science advisory committees. She responded to me in indicating
that she felt that she supported the idea of independent advisory
committees, and she felt this had been evidenced by her support
of a number of individual recommendations of Professor Nutt's
ACMD committee. I still feel that we need to be exploring this,
because I think that where you have a publication which is in
an independent peer reviewed journal, I think it is unfortunate
for government to actually criticise that in Parliament. So I
would concur with, for example, the comments that Lord Krebs gave
you when you asked him about the same subject. However, I think
that in terms of whether in fact this particular instance or others
like it, and I know of no others at the moment but you may be
able to illuminate me, are genuinely discouraging a set of people
who might previously have wanted to sit on science advisory committees,
that is not a thing that I have noticed or people have actually
mentioned to me. Certainly in terms of the concerns that you might
have about the general issue of independence of scientific advice,
in the recruitment that we have been doing for chief scientific
advisers, there seems to be a genuine enthusiasm and a very good
set of candidates for that. I think you took some evidence from
Professor Gaskell about DEFRA, who indicated that in people applying
to be on DEFRA's science advisory council, there was real interest
in there, but, of course, there may well be a cohort who are discouraged,
but it is hard to work out how we would actually do that. But
I think it is essential that the independence of science advisory
committees are maintained, I think as Paul has indicated, they
should publish their advice, unless there are national security
reasons for not doing so, and I think that is one way to ensure
Q332 Dr Harris: I am grateful to
you for setting out what you have done, and that is interesting,
because I was not aware of that, and I am not sure the Committee
was aware of that. That cannot be entirely private correspondence,
because you have summarised it, or at least you have given a summary
of it today. Is that as far as you are going to go in respect
of letting everyone know, including the scientific advisory world
and indeed Parliament, what your concerns were? Would you publish
Professor Beddington: I think
in publishing the correspondence, I would obviously have to consult
the Home Secretary, but I would be prepared to consult the Home
Secretary and come back to you.
Q333 Dr Gibson: Before it is published,
is that insisted on, are there guidelines about that?
Professor Beddington: I think
it would seem to me to be polite that if you are corresponding
with somebody, you should actually ask their agreement whether
you would publish both your letter to them and their response.
Q334 Dr Harris: I would accept that.
From the summary you have given, it looks as if you raised concerns,
which I understand, and the Home Secretary did not say -- and
you will have to correct me if I am wrong -- that she regretted
attacking him, criticising him, shall we say, on the floor of
the House in the terms that she did, nor phoning him during his
out-patient clinic, and I put it politely as request, but I think
if you read it it is probably demand, that he apologise for publishing
the article in the terms he did. Am I correct that there is not
such regret expressed in the response?
Professor Beddington: I would
have to check it, but certainly my memory is that the Home Secretary
indicated her strong support for the independence of scientific
advisory committees, rather than that she believed she had made
Q335 Dr Harris: You have indicated
that you do not think this will have an impact on recruitment,
and let us leave that aside.
Professor Beddington: I am sorry,
Dr Harris, I said I do not know.
Q336 Dr Harris: But there is a separate
question -- because I do not want to pursue that recruitment issue
-- that the worry is in future, particularly in this department,
shall we say, or with this Home Secretary, if one wants to avoid
getting that response, they are going to have to not publish what
they would otherwise publish, or they might be under pressure
to give different advice, such that they are not personally criticised.
Is that a concern that you recognise might exist, and would you
be concerned about it?
Professor Beddington: I think
this was a particular issue. As I indicated in an earlier response,
I have not noticed that occurring widely, and therefore, I think
one can decide that this is probably a particular issue and may
not occur again. I think that would be the hope.
Q337 Dr Harris: My final line on
this particular issue, on the ACMD, is that it struck meI
mean, I agree with what you wrote in your letter, let me be clear
about that, I will put that on the record, as I have before, and
that was a private letter that you wrote to the Home Secretary.
There was not a public declaration, as far as I know, of support
from you or from the chief scientific adviser at the Home Office,
nor from the council of the Home Office scientific advisers, the
chairs of which get to meet, and they are presumably there to
support each other. But I am certain that is the case, and I am
just wondering whether you are surprised that there was not that
support for him from within the scientific advisory system, or
were they aware that you had written privately to the Home Secretary,
and perhaps you had said something privately to Professor Nutt,
I do not know, offering him support, because I imagine it must
have been a difficult time for him.
Professor Beddington: I cannot
give you any indication about how much this was known within advisory
committees in the Home Office, but I did share my intention to
write to the Home Secretary with Paul Wiles, who is chief scientific
adviser at the Home Office.
Q338 Dr Harris: Because I think it
is important -- would you accept arguably that if people out there
know, and you have made that clear now actually, usefully, that
you are there to protect them if politicians, and we are a terrible
bunch of politicians, and I include the opposition parties in
that, start behaving politically on science matters, that you
are there to support them, privately and perhaps publicly, that
will actually help ensure that there is confidence that they can
give the advice that they wish to give without fear or favour?
Professor Beddington: I did not
write to or contact Professor Nutt, and I think perhaps in retrospect
I perhaps should have done. I did not. So to that extent, I am
more than happy to share my concerns with this committee. I think
that it is important that people are allowed to publish in peer
reviewed journals without being criticised.
Q339 Dr Gibson: Does this happen
quite a bit then?
Professor Beddington: Not that
I am aware of, Chairman.